CATECHISM PART III
CHRISTIAN MORALITY: THE FAITH LIVED
Introduction: Part One
(C 1691-2051, USC Ch. 23-24)
Part III of the Catechism is divided into two sections:
(1) Foundations of Christian Morality, and (2) The
In Section 1, we will look at the ten foundation stones
or building blocks of Christian morality. In this
article, we will examine the first six blocks.
What is Christian Morality?
Part Three of the Catechism is called “Life in Christ.”
Christian morality is all about living like Jesus. The
focus of Christian morality is our response to a God
who created us out of love and keeps us in being
every moment of every day and never ceases to love
us unconditionally. Christian morality is the faith
lived in the daily circumstances of our lives. It is
about appropriate and inappropriate responses to a
God who loves us.
Before delving into the specifics of morality through
the lens of the Ten Commandments, the Catechism
lays out for us ten foundation stones or building
blocks of Christian morality.
BUILDING BLOCK 1: CREATED IN THE IMAGE
OF GOD (C 1701-1715, USC p. 310)
To be created in the image and likeness of God
means that every human person in our global family,
born or unborn, is endowed with infinite dignity and
should be treated with reverence and respect.
Because we are created in God’s image, we are
blessed with intellect and will. Because we have an
intellect, we can distinguish good from evil. Because
we have a will, we can freely choose to follow God’s
law of love.
But because we have inherited original sin, we are
less than we could be. Due to original sin and personal
sin, our minds suffer from a certain darkness
which can make it difficult for us to distinguish good
from evil. We make bad judgments. Our will is weakened
making it difficult for us to choose what is right
and good. But the good news is that through the
sacrament of Baptism, we have received divine grace
and life into our soul which enable us to resist the
temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil.
BUILDING BLOCK 2: CREATED FOR THE
BEATITUDE OR HAPPINESS (C 1716-1724)
Those of us raised with the Baltimore Catechism
learned that God created us to know, love and serve
him here on earth, and to enjoy him forever in
heaven. The Catechism calls this “our vocation to
beatitude,” a word which means happiness. The
problem is that because of the influences of the
world, our own tendency towards sin and the
temptations of the flesh, we may believe that true
happiness is not found in a life committed to God, but
rather in the passing things that the world holds out to
us. Frequently, people say: “I’d be happy if I could
The Catechism tells us that the beatitude or happiness
that God offers us “confronts us with decisive moral
choices” (C 1723). It teaches us that the key to
happiness is following the law of love as spelled out
in the Ten Commandments, the beatitudes and the
teachings of the Church.
The beatitudes (Mt 5:3-12) are at the heart of Jesus’
teaching. Many scholars tell us that the eight beatitudes
are summed up in the first one: “Blessed are
the poor in Spirit” (Mt 5:3). The “poor in spirit” are
those who know their absolute need for God and live
their lives in radical trust and dependence on God.
Because the poor in spirit have learned to trust God
in all things, they are called “blessed” and “truly
In order to embrace the beatitudes as the key to a
happy and blessed life, we must undergo a deep
conversion of heart. Prior to such a conversion, the
beatitudes do not seem to make sense as they are not
a recipe for happiness but for sadness.
Pause: What is your understanding of a moral
life? Has this understanding changed over the
BUILDING BLOCK 3: RESPONSIBLE USE OF
FREEDOM (C 1730-1742, USC p. 310)
Freedom of will means the ability to freely choose to
live our lives or not to live our lives, as God would
have us live. Christians believe the more we follow
God’s path, the freer we become.
The flipside of freedom is responsibility. Freedom is
not the freedom to do as we want, but to do as we
ought as creatures of God. When we abuse our
freedom to do only as we want, we will gradually
become slaves to selfishness, sin and evil. The
Church recognizes that sometimes our freedom is
diminished or nullified due to ignorance, fear or other
psychological factors (C 1746).
BUILDING BLOCK 4: THREE ELEMENTS OF A
MORAL ACT (C 1749-1761, USC p. 311)
The fourth block or foundation stone of Catholic
morality concerns the three elements of a moral act:
the act (what we do), the intention (why we are doing
this act), and the circumstances in which we perform
a particular act (where, when, how, with whom, etc.).
Let’s look briefly at these three elements of a moral
Objective act (what we do). For an individual act to
be morally good, the object, or what we are doing,
must be objectively good. Some acts, irrespective of
the motive or intention for doing it, are always wrong
because they go against a fundamental or basic
human good that ought never to be compromised,
e.g., the direct killing of an innocent person, torture
or rape. “Such acts are called intrinsically evil acts,
meaning that they are wrong in themselves, apart
from the reason they are done or the circumstances
surrounding them” (USC p. 311).
Intention or motive (why we are doing this act). This
is usually called the subjective element of a moral act
because the intention for doing the act lies within us.
Two things should be noted here:
• A good intention can never make an intrinsically
evil act good. For example, the killing of an unborn
child to protect the mother’s reputation is
always seriously wrong. Hence, the saying: “The
end does not justify the means.”
• A bad intention can turn a good deed into an evil
one, e.g., giving money to a charitable organization
for the sole purpose of being recognized and
Circumstances surrounding the act. Circumstances
can and do contribute to increasing or diminishing
goodness or evil of the act, e.g., how much money
was stolen. Circumstances can also lessen or increase
a person’s blameworthiness for a particular act. For
example, there is considerable difference in degree of
guilt between a teen who has an abortion, not fully
aware that the unborn child is truly a human being,
and someone who clearly knows that the fetus is an
unborn child but decides anyway to terminate the
pregnancy because having a child would be costly
and a great inconvenience. There is a difference
between missing Mass on Sunday because one is lazy
and missing Mass because the nearest church is 60 or
100 miles away.
In summary, for an act to be morally good, all three
elements: the act (what I do), the intention (why I do
it), and the circumstances surrounding the act, must
Pause: The article offers some examples of how
circumstances can diminish one’s culpability in
an immoral situation. Can you think of other
BUILDING BLOCK 5: FORMATION OF
CONSCIENCE (C 1776-1802, USC p. 314)
“Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the
human person recognizes the moral quality of a
concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the
process of performing, or has already completed”
The voice of true conscience is like a law written in
the core of our being by God calling us to do good
and avoid evil. This inner voice helps us to distinguish
right from wrong and nudges us to do what
we believe to be good.
Eight types of conscience
Over the centuries, moral theologians have distinguished
several types of conscience. The following
are eight of them.
1. A true or correct Catholic conscience is one that
has made a sincere effort to discover the truth and
one that acts in accordance with the Word of God and
the teachings of the Church.
2. An erroneous conscience is one that is contrary to
God’s Word and the teachings of the Church. One
may have an erroneous conscience and not know it.
For example, a couple may think that their marriage
is recognized by the Church when in fact it is not. A
couple may think that “living together” prior to
marriage is morally correct when in fact it is contrary
to the teaching of the Church.
3. A bad conscience is one that has not even inquired
about what is right or wrong. It is a conscience that
has no regard for objective truth.
4. A weak conscience is one that may know what is
right but has not the courage or spiritual power to do
what is right. Or it may know what is wrong and
sinful and yet does it. For example, a woman may
know abortion is wrong but she may not have the
psychological or moral strength needed to carry the
baby to full term. A weak conscience is also easily
swayed by the opinions of other people.
5. A scrupulous conscience is one that frequently
thinks that it is sinning when in fact it is not. For
example, because of deformative and perfectionistic
training in a particular area like sexuality, one may
think that he is constantly sinning against the virtue
of chastity. It has been said that a scrupulous person
thinks that God is a tyrant. His God has an all-seeing
eye that watches his every move and is ready to
pounce on him for every wrong act. A person with a
scrupulous conscience needs to place himself under
the guidance of a competent and compassionate
confessor who will help to introduce him to the love
and mercy of God.
6. A lax conscience is one that is insensitive to the
good that ought to be done and the evil that ought to
be shunned. For example, one may be a racist, or may
have little or no social conscience, or be very permissive
in sexuality issues.
7. A rebellious conscience is one that shows little or
no respect for Church teaching, a conscience that
says: “I don’t care what the Church (or maybe even
the bible) says; I will do what I want to do.”
8. A formed conscience is one that has sought to
inform and educate itself about a particular moral
issue. For Catholics, forming one’s conscience will
always involve a prayerful reflection on what scripture
and the official teaching of the Church have to
say on a particular issue.
Any of us may have several of the above conscience
types at the same time. For example, we may have a
scrupulous conscience concerning sexuality issues
and a lax conscience about justice issues. We may be
well informed about some moral issues and be quite
uninformed about other issues. Then again, there may
be a moral area where we suffer from a weak conscience.
We know what is right but we fail to do it, or
we know what is wrong and yet we do it.
Education of conscience. The Catechism states that
“the education of conscience is a lifelong task”
(C 1784). Some helpful aids in the formation of conscience
are: scripture and other spiritual reading,
knowledge of Church teaching, daily examination of
conscience, regular use of the sacrament of reconciliation.
Should one always follow one’s conscience? One
should always follow a well formed conscience, a
conscience that we take time to educate about a
particular issue. The Catechism states: “A human
being must always follow the certain judgment of his
conscience. If he were to deliberately act against it,
he would condemn himself” (C 1790).
Pause: Building Block 5 addresses the issue of
conscience. Which of the above-listed eight types
of conscience had you not thought about or were
you not aware of?
BUILDING BLOCK 6: REALITY OF SIN AND
GOD’S MERCY (C 1846-1876, USC p. 312)
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and
the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is
faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and
cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (Jn 1:8-9)
We live in an age when the reality of sin is denied
and in which there is much confusion about sin.
Facing sin in our lives demands courage. Denying it
is as dangerous as denying cancer. It can lead to
spiritual death. Karl Menninger, a well-known
psychiatrist and author of the book Whatever Became
of Sin, recognized that when his patients took
responsibility for wrongdoing in their lives, their
mental health improved and vice versa.
What is sin? (C 1849-1851)
In general, sin is our failure to live the Great
Commandment to love God, others and self. The
Confiteor, which we sometimes pray at the beginning
of Mass, offers us a good description of sin.
“I confess to Almighty God and to you, my brothers
and sisters [a recognition that sin is not only an
offense against God but it also wounds the Body of
Christ and our church community], that I have sinned
through my own fault [I take responsibility for the
wrong I have done], in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done [sins of commission], and in
what I have failed to do [sins of omission].” Too
often, we forget sins of omission, the failure to do the
good we could have done.
Mortal and venial sins (C 1852-1864)
While all sin is serious and ought to be avoided, some
sins are more serious than others, just as some
offenses between two people are more hurtful or
damaging to the relationship than others. Some
offenses are so serious that they can kill a relationship.
So it is with us and God.
Mortal sin fatally damages the relationship between
us and God. The Catechism states that “mortal sin
destroys charity in the heart of man...it turns us away
from God...” (C 1855). Traditionally, the Church has
taught that for a sin to be mortal, three conditions
must be present.
• Grave matter, e.g., murder, adultery, rape, torture.
• Full knowledge: we clearly know that our action is
• Full consent of the will: we freely and under no
duress choose to do the evil. Factors that diminish
full consent are fear, compulsion, and addiction
The first of the above three elements of mortal sin is
easy enough to determine since “grave matter is
specified by the Ten Commandments” (C 1858). But
the other two conditions can be very difficult to
properly discern, even in oneself, much less in others.
Hence, we should never assume that someone is
guilty of mortal sin (C 1861).
Venial sin wounds but does not destroy our relationship
with God. “All wrongdoing is sin, but there is
sin that is not deadly” (1 Jn 5:17). All sin should be
avoided for it weakens our relationship with God.
Ignoring venial sin is like ignoring a minor cancer
that can become a serious one. “Deliberate and
unrepented venial sin disposes us little by little to
commit mortal sin” (C 1863). We know the truth of
this statement as we consider how a gradual neglect
of a relationship can eventually lead to divorce.
The seven capital sins. Some sins are called “capital”
or “deadly”’ because they can lead us to other sins
(C 1866). They come from the writings of St. John
Cassian who lived in the fourth century. The seven
capital sins are pride, avarice (greed), envy, wrath,
sloth, lust, gluttony. An excellent 36-page book on
the “Big Seven” is Liberation from the Seven Deadly
Sins by Fr. Kevin Joyce (www.SpiritSite.org,
Social sin. In addition to personal sin, the Catechism
also speaks about “structures of sin,” sometimes
called institutionalized sin, e.g., unjust political and
economic laws that favor one segment of the
population over another.
God’s mercy. “Where sin increased, grace abounded
all the more” (Rom 5:18). We cannot speak about sin
without speaking about God’s mercy. His mercy is
always greater than our capacity to sin. One of the
best ways to deepen our sense of God’s mercy is to
meditate on the wonderful mercy stories in the
scripture (Lk 7:36-50, 15:1-32, 23:39-43). But to receive
God’s mercy, we must first sincerely repent of sin.
The above scripture readings are wonderful stories
about God’s mercy and about people turning from
Pause: Building Block 6 deals with sin. What are
some prevalent behaviors today that are sinful
but are washed over as being acceptable, e.g.,
missing Mass for no good reason, racism?
This week, spend some time with the above six
blocks of Christian morality. Be aware of how they
may apply to your daily life and daily decisions.
Thomas More (1478-1535) was a well- educated man,
had a rich family life, was a devout Catholic and the
Chancellor to King Henry VIII of England. We might
say, “He had everything going for him.” His only
problem was that his friend the King wanted him to
take his side when he broke with Rome over his
divorce. The King also demanded that Thomas
acknowledge him as the supreme head of the Church
in England. Thomas refused. As a result, he was in
prison for fifteen months, lost all his titles and land,
and was convicted of treason in a bogus trial and
was beheaded. Before he died he said: “I die the
King’s good servant, but God’s first.” Thomas chose
to die rather than violate his conscience.
Fr. Eamon Tobin ©
Ascension Catholic Church
email@example.com √ tb 06.22.10